Monday, 10 December 2012

The Modern Sublime? Gaming and the Romantic Imagination

Edmund Burke
Perhaps the best-known definition of the sublime is from Edmund Burke's 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Here, Burke described the now-familiar dichotomy between the "feminine" beautiful and the "masculine" sublime. Beauty is found in objects or landscapes which are visually 'smooth' (rolling hills, for example); beauty is "that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it". The sublime, on the other hand, is accessed through experiences of the 'terrible'; that is, objects, landscapes or experiences which invoke fear or notions of vastness: "it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous". Felix Baumgartner's recent jump from space may be identified as a sublime experience: his view from the top of the jump incorporated the vastness of the globe, and the jump itself was undeniably sublimely terrifying.

Clearly, not all of us - not even most of us - are able to access sublime experiences in this way. Like the Romantic poets before us, we must find more everyday ways of locating the sublime. Unlike the Romantics, however, we are not looking to the natural world to access it, but to a virtual one. Jane McGonigal, from the Institute for the Future, describes in her 2010 lecture "Gaming can make a better world" how "we" currently spend 3 billion hours per week playing online games like World of Warcraft. She argues that the reason that spending such vast amounts of time in virtual worlds is appealing is because it is in those online landscapes and as part of those gaming communities that we can become "the best version of ourselves". Games like World of Warcraft, so McGonigal suggests,  allow gamers to experience deep bonds of trust as part of a collaborative community who work together to achieve world-changing goals, or an "epic win". In light of the 10,000 hours it is estimated many gamers will have already been interacting within such gaming communities by the age of 21, McGonigal asks how the skills learned in these virtual worlds may be applied to solving real-world problems like climate change and global hunger.

Part of the map of Skyrim.
World of Warcraft first came into existence back in 1994. It has since constructed (and continues to expand  upon) an "epic story"; players of WoW have accumulated a staggering 5.93 million years of gameplay, and have contributed to the second largest Wiki after Wikipedia. It is this vastness of time and resources that make WoW a sublime experience: as Burke suggested, "when we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth". If the player's individual experience is that "immediately sensible" quality, then the huge virtual world, and its vast number of inhabitants, is something "out of our depth". Gameplay on this scale is in itself a sublime experience.

Game designers now are increasingly exploring the sublime possibilities of gameplay. Bethesda's 2011 game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is the latest installment of The Elder Scrolls series which, like WoW, also emerged in 1994 (although this is not an online multi-player game). Like WoW, The Elder Scrolls series is formed around a central epic narrative which stretches back thousands of years. Like WoW, too, it has its own impressive Wiki. Skyrim takes advantage of the rapid graphical developments of the last few years; the player may go almost anywhere on the vast map, and the mind of the Skyrim player is, in Burkean terms, "bounded by the bounds of the object" - in this case, the map. Skyrim re-imagines the sublime mountainous landscapes of the northern hemisphere into this virtual world: the natural experiences of the Romantic poets are transfigured into the virtual experiences of the modern gamer.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.
This image became iconic for Romantic explorations
of the sublime.

Ikmik the High Elf surveying the Skyrim landscape.
Arguably nothing encapsulated the Romantic sublime experience more than the re-imaginings of the mountain experience. Whether it was Percy Bysshe Shelley's Alpine descriptions, Frankenstein's polar excursion, or Wordsworth's climbing of Snowdon, the Romantics almost universally located the sublime in the ice-tipped peaks of the highest regions of the world. Wordsworth described his ascent of Mount Snowdon in The Prelude (1850):
There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.
One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
'Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things,
So moulded, joined, abstracted, so endowed
With interchangeable supremacy,
That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel.
 The awe-inspiring landscape ignites similarly vast thought's in the poet's mind; his imagination becomes "mighty" through its contemplation of this "awful and sublime" sight. The mountain is sublime because it excites sentiments of eternity: the mind "feeds upon infinity", and the poet can look into "the dark abyss"; that is, his mind can reach inestimable heights and unfathomable depths, and the fear inspired by both is sublimely terrible. The poet's mind is formed through its experiences of the natural world.

More scenes from Skyrim.
Similarly, in Skyrim the inhabitants are frequently described as being necessarily hardy: their approach towards romantic love and marriage encapsulates the effects of the inhospitable landscape on their lives. The people of Skyrim, we are told, marry quickly once they have decided on a mate, because lives are precious in a land of extreme weather and unstable politics. The player is, then, submerged into a narrative predicated upon this imagined landscape, but the game goes further than this. The game seeks to enthrall the player through its use of the virtual, visual sublime; the player who remains stationery inside can nevertheless vicariously experience the "awful" natural world. Just as the Romantics seemed to retreat into the natural world, the modern gamer, according to Edward Castronova, is partaking in "a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments". If McGonigal is to be believed, these gamers, like the Romantics, may use their experiences in these imaginative or virtual landscapes to impact upon the real world.

If, as McGonigal suggests, gamers partake in these worlds because there they can become the best they can be, then they can also use these worlds to engage in experiences they will probably never have in their own, real lives. The modern gamer does not need to leave their home in order to experience the "mode of terror" which, Burke argues, "is always the cause of the sublime". Games developers can involve them in a world whereby they can access both the vast landscapes of the natural world, and those of their own "mighty mind[s]".


  1. Fantastic post Jo; particularly love the Friedrich/Skyrim visual comparison!

  2. A fascinating post! It's made me think also about Minecraft, particularly with relation to McGonigal's presentation and your comments on the players' impacts on the world. Minecraft is, arguably, quite a beautiful yet (intentionally) rugged representation/imagination of a 'world', which the player is allowed with quite remarkable freedom to manipulate the 'world' through mining, building and crafting.

    1. Thanks! I've not played Minecraft, but have heard the comparison before. The contrast that McGonigal highlights between lack of achievement in the real world and impact on the virtual one is fascinating I think; it'll be interesting to see if any of her projects really take off. Though would you then just get people wandering around with pickaxes?

  3. Really interesting post. As someone who has played a few MMORPGs (including WoW) I am intrigued by both the possible truth and apparent falseness of McGonigal's idea about gaming and the realization of a 'best self'. More specifically, games like Warcraft, where the player base is organized via a leveling system that is based on accumulated 'experience points', mean that there is something akin to a virtual scale going from the mundane to the sublime in terms of the game experience, and that scale is controlled mostly by time put in. In other words, the players doing the 'epic' story arcs and who are impacting the world of the game in a real way are those who have put in a tremendous amount of time, in order to have accumulated enough experience points to be 'leveled up' (stronger, faster, smarter, etc.) enough to participate in the most 'sublime' of what might be called 'world-acts' in the game. For newer and lower-level players, the game experiences can be far different, far less sublime, because in many MMORPGs the way to the top is by participating in acts called 'grinding' or 'loot farming' where a player or team of players travels to a certain area of the game and fights/kills randomly-generated AI-based enemies over and over (and over) to get experience, to get levels, and to pick up rare items (the 'loot') that drop from a certain enemy based on a very low percentage of probability, so the only way to get them is to make sure you destroy a vast quantity of in-game enemies. Now, on the one hand, this 'picture' of the game, where the elite few create the conditions of the world/storyline for the less established many, including influencing the price of items within in-game markets/influencing in-game economy, is similar to a picture of some kinds of capitalism (think of U.S. and the 1% etc.). To me this seems to create an expectation of action that is both good and bad with respect to seeing a game like WoW as being something opposed to the 'game' of the real world.

    1. Depending on how you feel about it, we can see a game like WoW as demanding the same sort of skillful social and economic navigation that is required of people in the real world, and so success in this area in-game might translate into similar success in the real world. But at the same time, you begin to see, as in real life, players ascending into the elite who don't have to do the same work as everyone else, because they are already connected in some way to this or that powerful and established clan or alliance in WoW, which definitely supports and encourages player-based organizations. Now, if you look at the lowest end of the scale, you don't see people who are prepared to realize a best self, but people who are forced to do the same mindless task over and over each day to try to catch up with the people who are at the top of the game, who are maxed out for levels and experience and spend all their time doing 'raids' and other 'epic' sort of acts that impact the entire gaming world. So we still end up with the problems we see in capitalistic societies, because while the low-levels are dumping in hours killing the same level-1 boar or pig over and over, and even a level-30 or -40 player who has achieved a lot but not nearly what the top people have achieved goes on killing the same level-50 dragon over and over, during this time the level-100 guilds and clans who have access to ALL of the game's resources and items and have virtually unlimited gold are continuing to engage in epic battles and storyline-based quests that change the entire economy and even the level-curve of the game. Blizzard, the company that runs WoW, will continue to produce content for the sake of these high-level players that extends levels, titles, item rarity, etc., in order for there to be something 'ahead' of these players in time that will cause them to continue to play (if their sense of total power and exclusivity isn't motive enough); and this creation of extending-content causes the efforts of the other players to become exceedingly trivial over time, so that the only way to really catch up and impact the world in a sublime way, in a game like WoW, is to devote virtually all of one's time to it, often to the detriment of any other activies one might pursue. So the formula becomes complicated beyond merely a question of reaching a 'best self' who is equal to having a hand in world-impactive play: is this a 'best self' that requires the sacrifice of the potential to develop a parallel but equally 'best self' in every other world-as-such besides Warcraft? Finally, I would make the point that for the lowest-level and new players who face a vast and confusing world of infinite possibilities but highly limited best-practices for play, there is little motivation to be anything other than a grinding or looting machine and to keep one's head down so as not to be upset by higher level players who could kill you for sport; or to do nothing but constantly ask high-level players for gold or items so as to be able to skip all the drudgery. Either way, this sort of behavior isn't exemplary, but is necessary if one ever hopes to be anywhere near the point where one might be able to realize a 'best self'. Now, I don't entirely disagree with McGonigal: my overall thesis is simply that WoW is actually not a very good model for a game that encourages people to realize their potential (because while all this is going on, you pay $15 a month). I do believe that virtual worlds and the Romantic sense of human potential have something to do with one another, but the kind of virtual world that could hold up, under macro- and micro-scrutiny, to the challenge of providing players with the opportunity for virtuous improvement has yet to be made, perhaps even yet to be dreamed up!

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